Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, October 3, 2016

books on The Good Book

The Wall Street Journal commissioned this review but in the end didn't find space for it. Which is cool, because they paid me for it anyway. I offer it here gratis, for your reading pleasure. 

One of the first attempts to account for literature in terms of evolutionary psychology was provided by Stephen Pinker, in his 1998 book How the Mind Works. There he suggested that “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.” Take Hamlet for example: “What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

This was perhaps a rather wooden and literal-minded example, and Pinker has received some hearty ribbing for perpetrating it, so one might expect that more recent entries in the genre have grown more sophisticated. But not so much.

The difficulties start with what ev-psych critics think a story is. They think a book is a kind of machine for solving problems of survival or flourishing, sort of like a wheel or a hammer except made with words rather than wood or rock. Thus Carel von Schaik and Kai Michel (hereafter S&M) in The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible: “We know how humans evolved over the last 2 million years and how and to what degree the prehistoric environment shaped the human psyche.... We can therefore reconstruct the problems the Bible was trying to solve.” Leaving aside the rather significant question of how much “we” actually do know about human prehistory and its role in forming our brains, one might still ask whether the Bible is a problem-solving device. But this is one of the governing assumptions of S&M's book and no alternatives to this assumption are ever considered.

The Good Book of Human Nature is governed by a few other assumptions too. One is that the turning point in human development was what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”: trading in a hunter-gatherer life for a sedentary agricultural life. Another is that humans possess three “natures” that are related to this transition: first, “innate feelings, reactions, and preferences” that predate the transition; second, a cultural nature, based on strategies for dealing with the problems that arose from assuming a sedentary life; and third, “our rational side,” which is based on consciously held beliefs.

These assumptions in turn generate a theory of religion, which is basically that religion is a complex strategy for keeping the three natures in some degree of non-disabling relation to one another. And when, equipped with these assumptions and this theory, S&M turn their attention to the Bible — again, conceived as a problem-solving device — it turns out that the Bible confirms their theory at every point. Previous interpreters of the Bible, S&M note, have never come to any agreement about what it means, but they have discovered what it’s “really about,” what its “actual subject really is”: “the adoption of a sedentary way of life.” They do not say whether they expect to put an end to interpretative disagreement. Perhaps modesty forbade.

Thus armed, S&M get to work. The patriarchal narratives illustrate and teach responses to “the problems created by patriarchal families," and formulate an “expansion strategy" in relation to said problems. The portions of Scripture known in Judaism as the Writings — Ketuvim, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job and so on — collectively embody an IAR (immunization against refutation) strategy. The prophets, including the New Testament’s accounts of the life of Jesus? All about CREDs (credibility-enhancing displays).

If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. To me, a little of it goes a very long way — and this Good Book offers 450 pages of it, which is like a two-finger piano exercise that lasts seven hours. My complaint is the opposite of that put forth by the Emperor in Amadeus: Too few notes, I say. Played too many times.

Is it really likely that this enormously divergent collection of writings we call the Bible has a single “subject”? That the heartfelt outpourings of the Psalms and the lamentations of Job amount to a “strategy”? Moreover, given that the conditions of production that S&M think relevant — the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists — happened all over the world, the account they give here should be the same were they working on any surviving writings from the same era. Which means that their book on Homer and Hesiod and Sappho would say mostly the same things this book says.

This is what happens when you confine your reading to a few highly general principles of “human history” and “human social development”: all the particularity, and therefore all the interest, drains from the world. S&M may have encountered some interesting residual phenomena from the sedentarization of homo sapiens. What they have not encountered is the Bible.

After all this, I turned with some relief to A. N. Wilson’s The Book of the People, not because I expected to agree with it, but because I expected it to involve something clearly recognizable to me as reading. But I did not get quite what I thought I would.

The material of Wilson’s book arises largely from conversations with a person known only by the single initial “L.” Wilson unaccountably extends this peculiar naming convention to everyone else in the book, including his wife and daughters and an English journalist (“H.”) living in Washington who once wrote for a number of London periodicals, smoked and drank a lot, and ultimately died of throat cancer. (Couldn't we at least call him Hitch?) But in the case of L. there seems to be good reason for this limited form of identification.

Wilson met L. when he was an undergraduate and she a graduate student at Oxford. Wilson very gradually discloses details about her over the course of the book: that she was very tall and wore thick glasses; that she was a Presbyterian; that she was a disciple of the great Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye; that she had a lifelong history of mental illness, which may have contributed to an irregular work history and a preference for moving frequently; and, above all, that she planned to write a book about the Bible.

Wilson studied theology at one point, and considered enterting the priesthood, but later became thoroughly disillusioned by Christianity and by religion in general, going so far as to write a pamphlet called Against Religion (1991). But almost as soon as he had written it he began to have reservations — “I am in fact one of life’s wishy-washies,” he confesses at one point — and eventually returned to belief, as L. had prophesied he would. L. told him that he could only come to the truth about God and the Bible after rejecting falsehoods about it, chief among those falsehoods being the two varieties of fundamentalism: theistic and atheistic.

As Wilson travels through life — and travels around the world: much of this book involves descriptions of apparently delightful journeys to romantic or historic places — he keeps thinking about the Bible, and when he does he also thinks of L. They correspond; they meet from time to time. Typically she has moved to another place and has added to her notes on her Bible book, though she never gets around to reading it. Eventually we learn that she has died. Wilson manages to get to her funeral, at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Wiltshire, and receives from the nuns there a packet containing her jottings. “It is from these notes that the present book is constructed. This is L.’s book as much as mine.”

So what does Wilson learn from L. about the Bible? It is hard to say. To give one example of his method: at one point he muses that L. must have in some sense patterned herself on Simone Weil, the great French mystic who died in 1943, which reminds him that Weil had been brought to Christian faith largely by her encounter with the poetry of the 17th-century Anglican George Herbert. This leads him to quote some of Herbert’s poems, and to note their debt to the Psalms, which in turn leads him to think about how the Psalms are used in the Gospels, which, in the last link of this particular literary chain, leads him to wonder whether the story of the Crucifixion is but poetry, a “literary construct.” A question which he does not answer: instead he turns to an account of L.’s funeral.

That’s how this book goes: it consists of a series of looping anecdotal flights that occasionally touch down and look at the Bible for a moment, before being spooked by something and lifting off again. There is at least as much about traveling to Ghent to see Van Eyck’s great altarpiece, and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Istanbul with Hagia Sophia looming portentously in the background, and meeting L. in coffeeshops, as about the Bible itself.

If there is any definitive lesson Wilson wishes us to learn from all this, it is the aforementioned folly of fundamentalism. At several points he recalls his own forays into the “historical Jesus” quests and dismisses them as pointless: none of the rock-hard evidence believers seek will ever be found, nor will unbelievers be able to find conclusive reason to dismiss the accounts the Gospels give of this peculiar and extraordinary figure.

At this point we should reflect on that literary device of using initials rather than names. More than once Wilson calls to our attention the view widely held among biblical scholars that the texts we have are composites of earlier and unknown texts: thus the “Documentary Hypothesis” about the Pentateuch, with its four authors (J, E, D, and P), and the posited source (in German Quelle) for the synoptic Gospels, Q. In light of all this we cannot be surprised when, late in the book, Wilson confesses that L. is herself a “composite figure,” one he “felt free to mythologize.”

Is he simply saying that we’re all just storytellers, that it’s mythologizing all the way down, no firm floor of fact to be discovered? If so, then while The Book of the People may in some sense live up to its subtitle — How to Read the Bible — it certainly does not tell us, any more than S&M did, why we should bother with this strange and often infuriating book.

I find it hard not to see both The Good Book of Human Nature and The Book of the People as complicated attempts to avoid encountering the Bible on its own terms, in light of its own claims for itself and for its God. I keep thinking that what Kierkegaard said about “Christian scholarship” is relevant to these contemporary versions of reading: “We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose.”


  • Lots to ponder, and yet at the same time, not so much. I will do my best to reduce what could be a massively long comment to a modest reply.

    The thesis you report being presented in The Good Book of Human Nature is remarkably similar to yet another rereading of The Bible (from 8 or so years ago as memory serves) suggesting that the overarching story (Old Testament, anyway) is a cultural history of The Fall. This corresponds to the first two of the three natures described in the book, namely, our loss of the state of grace associated with prehistoric animism. The third nature well postdates the Biblical era. So which is true: cultural history or how-to book on managing our (two or) three natures? Authors S&M appear to fall victim to the intentional fallacy and confirm their own assumptions based in no small part on conjecture and pure invention. Reminds me of long strings of self-reinforcing quantum nonsense that’s fascinating and (too far) clever but ultimately pretty meaningless.

    Inasmuch as all stories, Biblical or otherwise, are at root about ourselves and our relationships to others and the world around us, the idea of cultural history makes good sense to me. However, evolutionary strategy, though fashionable these days to describe, justify, and rationalize behaviors occurring in real time (human experience, as distinguished from evolutionary time), is always an unprovable, pointless stretch. It also adds nothing worthwhile, just like the supposed god gene (or genome) proposed by several notable overthinkers.

    Of the second book reviewed I have nothing much to say except that the late admission that the characters are composites freely mythologized feels somehow -- even without reading the book -- like a betrayal.

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